Before the holidays, I was browsing in the bookstore that is attached to Uwajamiya, one of Seattle’s large Asian food grocery stores. I was there to find some manga as a present for my daughter, but of course, immediately got sucked into the cookbook section, completely tempted by book after book that I had never seen before. Never mind that they were written in kanji, so I had no hope of reading any of them…. the photos were enough to keep me mesmerized until realizing the time, I had to rush on over to get the books I was supposed to be buying.
Afterward, one set of books stuck with me… those by Harumi Kurihara. The Japanese versions of these books are graphically gorgeous, light, airy and elegant. I knew I’d have to find the English version. Luckily, there are two… not quite in the same light style, but still beautifully published. Last week, I picked up Harumi’s Japanese Home Cooking and flipping through I knew I had a winner of a book. Many of my favorite Japanese dishes… tonkatsu, gyoza, tomago are beautifully illustrated. Finding the recipe for homemade udon noodles, however, was the real kicker.
Even better, these noodles are about the most fun thing to make (not to mention incredibly simple). I thought I’d be able to use my new toy… the pasta attachment for my Kitchen Aid…but as it turns out, these slippery, thick noodles really don’t require anything other than a bit of arm strength and some time. In fact, I highly recommend against using the dough hook attachment on the Kitchen Aid for the initial kneading… I gave it a try, and found that it couldn’t get the dough to form into a ball well enough when my hands could. Once the dough was in a ball, it was far too heavy and stiff for the mixer to knead it properly. That said, it’s also too hard to knead it with your hands at that point… so Harumi has a wonderful solution. Use your whole body… by wrapping the dough in a plastic and then a towel, you walk all over it to help work the gluten in the dough. Brilliant! It’s so much fun. If you have kids, you must give this a try. Or, even if you don’t.
I found the noodles this recipe makes to be more on the rustic side… more like handshaven noodles than packaged udon. That’s part of what makes them good… but if you prefer a more even, refined noodle, and you have a pasta maker, try using the roller to press out the dough before hand cutting the noodles.
1 cup lukewarm water
5 t salt
3 1/2 c bread flour
1 1/2 c all-purpose flour
Dissolve the salt in about 1 T of the water, then add the rest of the water. Set aside.
In a very large bowl that you’ll be able to knead the dough in, combine the two flours with a fork. Make a little well in the center, and add the salted water. Use the fork to pull a little bit of flour into the liquid, and then start to use your hands to work the moistened flour into the rest of the flour. Depending on the moisture content of your flour, you might need to add a bit more water… as the dough comes together, it should form into a lumpy ball. If it stays as too ragged, sprinkle a bit more water on and work it in.
Start seriously kneading the dough as hard as you can for about 10 minutes, on a board dusted with bread flour. If the dough is too sticky, knead in a touch more of the bread flour. To knead, fold over from the top, and use the heal of your palm to press it flat again. Turn the dough 45 degrees and repeat.
Now comes the fun part. Wrap the dough in a heavy duty plastic bag. I like to use left over produce bags.. but they are thin so I double wrapped to be safe. Then, wrap the the plastic bag in a largish kitchen towel. Set it on the ground and stand on it. Move around, do a little dance, hop up and down, take a stroll. Your whole body weight on the dough will work it like your hands never could. This helps make the noodles good and chewy. After a few minutes, take the dough out of the bags… it will be pretty flat, but with a rolling pin, roll out any irregularities. Then give it a fold, put it back in the bag, wrap it in the towel and walk on it some more. Repeat this process about 4 times. Then, leaving the dough in the bag, let it rest for 3 hours in a warm place.
After it’s had a chance to rest, take the dough out and form it into a ball. Place it back in the bag & towel and walk on it one more time… this time making a point to try to spread the dough as much as possible. The thinner you can get it by walking on it, the easier the rest of the process will be.
Take the dough out from the bag again, and roll it out on a floured surface until it is a square about 1/8 inch thick. The dough may be pretty stiff and springy, so this may be a bit challenging. If you can’t seem to get it thin enough with a rolling pin or if you want a more refined udon, cut it into 4 pieces and run it through the thickest setting of a pasta machine, and give them a good dusting of flour.
Next, fold the dough from the top to the center and then from the center to the bottom (like an accordian). Then, with one of the long edges facing you, slice off the dough in 1/8 inch pieces. Dust the sliced pieces with a bit more flour as you go to prevent them from sticking.
Boil the noodles immediately, or cover with a towel while you are waiting for the water to come to a boil. The noodles will need to boil for about 7 minutes, stirred with a chopstick to prevent them form sticking together.
Traditionally, the noodles are served hot, with a dashi-based stock. But, they are also delicious stir fried with a splash of sesame oil, oyster sauce, soy, sesame seeds and some veggies or meat of your choice.